Leav­ing the Stage

What will Trump’s de­ci­sion to with­draw from Syria mean for the re­gion?

Beijing Review - - WORLD - By Wang Jin

‘We have de­feated ISIS in Syria, my only rea­son for be­ing there dur­ing the Trump pres­i­dency,” U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump tweeted tri­umphantly on De­cem­ber 19, 2018. His de­ci­sion to with­draw over 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria was later con­firmed by the White House. It not only shocked the Wash­ing­ton cir­cles, but will also in­flu­ence the geopo­lit­i­cal land­scape in the Mid­dle East.

Why now?

The au­thor is a re­search fel­low at the Charhar In­sti­tute and the Univer­sity Haifa in Is­rael Trump’s de­ci­sion to with­draw from Syria and par­tially from Afghanistan is based largely on two as­sump­tions. First, Trump be­lieves that the U.S. pres­ence in the Mid­dle East does not serve its na­tional in­ter­ests and does not get the proper re­spect from re­gional states. More­over, with­draw­ing from Syria and Afghanistan was one of his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign prom­ises and Trump hopes to be per­ceived as a leader who is “a man of his word.”

Sec­ond, the U.S. tra­di­tional con­cerns in the Mid­dle East, such as pro­tect­ing oil sup­plies and de­feat­ing the di­rect threat of ter­ror­ism, have dis­ap­peared or are de­creas­ing. The United States has trans­formed it­self from an oil-im­port­ing state to an oil-ex­port­ing coun­try due to the de­vel­op­ment of shale oil tech­nol­ogy, while the ex­trem­ist group, the Is­lamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is also dis­ap­pear­ing with years of global ter­ror­ism com­bat­ing ef­forts. In re­cent years, the ma­jor tar­gets for ISIS and Al-qaeda have been shifted from the United States to “tak­firs,” de­fined as Mus­lims who are ac­cused by other Mus­lims of be­ing non-be­liev­ers, or apo­static states, coun­tries ac­cused of re­nounc­ing Is­lam, in both Europe and the Arab world.

As the win­ner of the Cold War, the United States’ dom­i­nat­ing in­flu­ence in the Mid­dle East was once ac­cepted by both the re­gion and the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity. It was the United States that led the Gulf War in 1991. It was also the United States that or­ga­nized the peace process be­tween Is­rael and Pales­tine and fa­cil­i­tated the peace ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween Is­rael and Arab states, es­pe­cially Syria and Jor­dan in the 1990s. It was the United States that launched the war against Afghanistan un­der the Tal­iban in 2001, and Iraq in 2003, and later helped in­stall the new gov­ern­ments and lo­cal po­lit­i­cal sys­tems. It was the United States that wanted to con­strain the in­flu­ence of Iran in the Mid­dle East and ini­ti­ated sanc­tions against Tehran. It is not an ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say that the United States has con­structed the Mid­dle East’s re­gional and geopo­lit­i­cal struc­ture since the 1990s.

Trump has his own ex­pla­na­tions for his de­ci­sion to with­draw, but he still faces tremen­dous pres­sure at home. U.S. De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis re­signed af­ter Trump’s an­nounce­ment as did U.S. spe­cial en­voy for the coali­tion to counter ISIS Brett Mcgurk.

For many U.S. diplo­mats and for­eign pol­icy ex­perts, stay­ing in Afghanistan and Syria has meant main­tain­ing U. S. dom­i­nance in the re­gion and re­pelling the in­flu­ence of its re­gional and in­ter­na­tional com­peti­tors, es­pe­cially Iran and Rus­sia. Trump’s de­ci­sion to with­draw cre­ates a sud­den geopo­lit­i­cal vac­uum in the re­gion, with the U.S. rep­u­ta­tion and in­flu­ence in the re­gion set to be fur­ther chal­lenged.

Re­gional com­pe­ti­tion

The U.S. with­drawal marks an im­por­tant step in chang­ing the geopo­lit­i­cal bal­ance in the Mid­dle East, and will lead to a new round of com­pe­ti­tion and ri­valry among re­gional pow­ers, es­pe­cially Turkey, Iran, Saudi Ara­bia and Is­rael.

Turkey be­lieves the Syr­ian Kur­dish Demo­cratic Union Party (PYD) is a branch of what it terms a ter­ror­ist group at home, the Kur­dis­tan Work­ers’ Party (PKK), and is de­ter­mined to elim­i­nate it from north Syria through mil­i­tary of­fen­sives. Turkey launched two ma­jor of­fen­sives in 2016 and early 2018 to ex­pel the Pyd-dom­i­nated mil­i­tant groups from north Syria. It hopes to es­tab­lish a buf­fer zone in north Syria across the en­tire Syr­ian-turk­ish bor­der to set­tle both the Syr­ian rebels it backs and the 3.5 mil­lion Syr­ian refugees cur­rently in Turkey.

It was Turkey that suc­cess­fully per­suaded Trump to with­draw from Syria and is pre­par­ing for a mil­i­tary of­fen­sive in north Syria af­ter the with­drawal. Once Turkey launches its mil­i­tary of­fen­sive, it may lead to a new round of re­gional com­pe­ti­tion or even con­flict.

The Syr­ian Gov­ern­ment still in­sists on its le­gal claim over all Syr­ian ter­ri­tory. From the 1980s to mid- 1990s, the PKK and the Syr­ian Gov­ern­ment had very close re­la­tions and north Syria was once an im­por­tant base for PKK mili­tias to in­fil­trate into south Turkey to launch at­tacks. Af­ter the Syr­ian civil

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